The Activists of Paris Are Ready for a Movement Now

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a workshop for activists at the labor union hall

Paris   On the bus to our meetings in Paris we were clogged up in a huge traffic circle where the Bastille, the infamous prison of the French Revolution was located. On that site now is a quite grand appearing Opera House. My colleague had earlier reprised stories of Charles De Gaulle and his comeback after the worst defeat of the French Army “in 2000 years,” as he called it. We met members of several local political parties in the afternoon at a café, where even I could translate the original sign saying this was the Café of the Unions. Down the street we met that evening in the a vast building constructed by the unions after the mid-1800’s Paris Commune, when workers concluded that they had insufficient space in Paris to meet, discuss, plan, and take action. In the room where we met a score of local activists, a translation of the sign on the door was that this was the room “of the little strike.” History seemed everywhere around us, but even surrounded by history, this is where things start.

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In Grenoble, our leaders were focused on the hard problems at the basics of organization. How to build their local groups and keep the members active? How to balance growing the organization with maintaining the existing pace? How to navigate their role as leaders between the staff and membership? In Paris, our colleagues had vast political experience in the labor movement, student unions, mobilizations, political parties, and more, but they were looking past the grassroots specifics to the grander vision, and they were hungry to ignite the movement that would bring back the good times and create the big changes of our dreams. They knew the work of our affiliates and partners, Alliance Citoyenne and ReAct, and the idea of ACORN excited them about the possibilities they could see in the future.

Answering Questions

Answering Questions

The questions probed recruitment, campaigns, and of course politics and how ACORN handled these issues around the world and historically in the United States. Ironically, where with the leaders I had tried to gently pull them towards looking at the bigger picture of their opportunities, with this crowd of seasoned activists I found myself pushing them to the concrete realities of the work and what it took to realize those dreams.

For example, one great question spoke of the decline of the workers’ movement in France and Europe and seemed to ask if ACORN could be the modern vehicle to revive those times of sweeping change. The question took my breath away with its excitement, but the enormity of the project and our place in it, forced an answer that must have disappointed many, when I argued that we would simply be one force of many and that we in fact couldn’t make it all happen without a wider array of organizations, especially labor, moving in the same direction. I had to remind my new friends that despite the growth and success of ACORN in the USA over its years, there was still galloping and growing inequity, the end of welfare, stagnant wages, declining incomes for many of our families, and abandonment of support for much of the urban America where ACORN members struggled and fought.

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN's affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

Nonetheless, this was a hopeful crowd ready to do the work, and that was exciting in itself, and challenges us to do more in Paris and across France and Europe. It was refreshing finally to answer questions that came from one of our leaders in attendance from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb on the brass tacks of negotiations, something I could handle more confidently. I even got a question on whether dues should be lower for a 23-year old member where with relief I could simply answer, “No.”

As we left in good spirits together after several hours of dialogue, we passed the door to the giant auditorium on the main floor. A peek inside saw people lined along the walls of the great expanse. They were singing, and we left the building to a joyous noise.

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

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Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest

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